“The whole perplexity lies in just what is more beautiful: Shakespeare or boots, Raphael or petroleum?”

Part Three Chapter One, Sections 3-4
by Dennis Abrams

“The Fete. First Part.” “Again something wrong was hovering in the hall.” “…why is that at the end of their illustrious years these gentleman geniuses of ours sometimes act just like little boys?” At a literary reading, even a genius cannot “with impunity” occupy the public for more than twenty minutes. Karmazinov makes his appearance, “Even the sternest old men expressed approval and curiosity, and the ladies even a certain rapture.” Karmazinov’s voice, “was rather shrill, even somewhat feminine, and with a genuine, highborn, aristocratic lisp besides.” “Merci” — Imagine some thirty printed pages of the most mincing and useless babble; what’s more, the gentleman was reading somehow superciliously, ruefully, as if for a favor, so that it even came out offensive to our public.” The story goes on and on: love, a writer of genius, his first kiss, the violet hue in the sky, which only the author had noticed, Germany, Gluck playing a fiddle, two and a half pages on crossing the Volga before the hero falls through a hole in the ice, Germany and the frozen tear, caves, Hoffman, a mermaid whistling something from Chopin, laurel wreathed Ancius Marcius, haughty smiles at Russia…”Of course the end was none too good; but the bad thing was that everything started with it. The crowd grows restless, Karmazinov is oblivious, until a loud voice is heard, “Lord, what rubbish!” Karmazinov’s mistake in responding, “It seems, ladies and gentlemen, that you are rather bored with me?” More voices, more objections are heard. Karmazinov becomes rattled. The young teacher speaks out, “Mr. Karmazinov, if I had the good fortune to love as you had described to us, I really wouldn’t put anything about my love into an article intended for public reading…” Karmazinov asks permission to read the six concluding lines, which end with him imagining the reading public falling their knees begging him to “Write, oh, write for u s, Karmazinov — for the fatherland, for posterity, for the wreaths of laurel…” The crowd in the back rows react badly, but they are drowned out by the “applause of the other part of the public.” Karmazinov is called back, and is bestowed with two wreaths, one of laurel, one of live roses, by Yulia, the marshal’s wife, and others. Are cooks more useful than Karmazinov? As the restlessness and chaos continues to grow, Stepan Trofimovich prepared to take the stage. The narrator tries to persuade Stepan not to speak and to leave with him and go home, “Why, my dear sir, do you consider me capable of such baseness?” “I stepped back. I was as sure as two times two that he would not get out of there without catastrophe.” Stepan, pale, steps out to speak. Stepan raises the subject of the ‘mystery’ of lawless papers, tracts. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have solved the whole stupidity. The whole mystery of their effect lies — in their stupidity!…Were it just a drop more intelligently expressed, everyone would see at once all the poverty of this short stupidity.” Stepan proposes a toast to stupidity. His last words: “Only one thing has happened: the displacing of purposes, the replacing of one beauty by another! The whole perplexity lies in just what is more beautiful: Shakespeare or boots, Raphael or petroleum?” Stepan proclaims the supremacy of art and beauty, “higher than the emancipation of the serfs, higher than nationality, higher than socialism, higher than the younger generation, higher than chemistry, higher than almost all of mankind, for they are already the fruit, the real fruit of all mankind, and maybe the highest fruit there ever may be! A form of beauty already achieved, without the achievement of which I might not even consent to live…” Mankind can live without Englishman, without German, without the Russian man, without science, “and it only cannot live without beauty, for then there would be nothing at all to do in the world! The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here!” The order in the hall begins to break down. Stepan breaks down into tears. Yulia grabs her husband’s arm and pulls him from his chair…”The scandal was going beyond bounds.” The seminarian attacks Stepan, asking him if he hadn’t sold Fedka to the army to pay off a debt in cards, would he have wound up at hard labor, “Would he go around putting a knife in people, as he does now, in his struggle for existence? What have you got to say, mister aesthete?” With that, one fifth of the crowd applauds, the rest makes for the exits. “Yulia Mikhailovna was quite lost — for the first time during her career among us.” Stepan’s last desperate words: “I shake the dust from my feet and curse you…The end…the end…” and runs backstage. Before the remaining enraged crowd can chase after him, the third reader, “that maniac who kept waving his fist backstage, suddenly ran out on the platform,” and attacks fifteen years of meaningless reforms in Russia, bringing the crowd to its feet, “The ecstasy went beyond all bounds.” Officials make several attempts to drag the reader off stage, the partition on stage collapses, and the girl student, a group including the high-school boy, makes her case, “I have come to proclaim the sufferings of unfortunate students and rouse them to protest everywhere.”

Holy cow. While Karmazinov’s reading may have lost some of its topical punch, it still remains clear what an effective take-down of Turgenev it was and is. Impressive.

But nothing compared to what follows. Stepan’s courage in facing the crowd, his impassioned defense of what matters, was, I thought, tremendously impressive and moving. Who’d have thought he was capable of it? This passage was, I thought, incredible:

“Only one thing has happened: the displacing of purposes, the replacing of one beauty by another! The whole perplexity lies in just what is more beautiful: Shakespeare or boots, Raphael or petroleum?,,,And I proclaim,…and I proclaim that Shakespeare and Raphael are higher than the emancipation of the serfs, higher than nationality, higher than socialism, higher than the younger generation, higher than chemistry, higher than almost all of mankind, for they are already the fruit, the real fruit of all mankind, and maybe the highest fruit there ever may be! A form of beauty already achieved, without the achievement of which I might not even consent to live…” “And do you know, do you know that mankind can live without the Englishman, it can live without Germany, it can live only too well without the Russian man, it can live without science,k without bread, and it only cannot live without beauty, for then there would be nothing at all to do in the world! The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here!”

Followed by the genius stroke of the seminarian’s attack on Stepan for selling Fedka to pay his gambling debts, turning him, we can only presume, into the Fedka the Convict we’ve grown to know and…

And finally the brilliance of ending the scene on a comic note, with the girl student once again proclaiming the sufferings of unfortunate students…

An all together remarkable scene.

In his comments today, one of our most faithful posters, “Minnikin” posted this essay by Dostoevsky translator David McDuff on his anti-semitism. (Thanks for sharing!) I noted the other day that for some reason, Dostoevsky’s anti-semitic attitudes don’t particularly bother me — I suspect it’s because, given where he lived and when he lived , along with his strong religious beliefs, they’re not particularly surprising. At any rate, the subject of anti-semitism in literature is one that comes up again and again from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Eliot to Celine and so on. (I’m thinking after we’ve finished Dostoevsky to do a year of Shakespeare, reading all the plays in chronological order, which will give us an opportunity to look at him in-depth, including, naturally, his attitude towards Jews.)

Dershowitz, Dostoyevsky, and the Devil

In the final chapter of his compelling study of attitudes towards present day Israel, Alan Dershowitz mentions one widely held view among Israel’s critics, who like to say that the current situation in the Middle East is “the Israelis’ fault”, or “Sharon’s fault”. He shows how this type of thinking has its roots in the past, when blaming outbreaks of anti-Semitism on the victims was a common response among European and Russian intellectuals. In his Writer’s Diary – the blog to outblog all blogs – the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky published a notorious article of 1879 in which he claimed that “It’s all the Jews’ fault”, and declared that the hatred of Jews “must have stemmed from something” – “the Jew himself is guilty”.

As Dershowitz points out, “Dostoyevsky’s views of the worldwide Jewish conspiracy are not much different from the views expressed by Hitler in Mein Kampf or in the Czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” For Dershowitz, as for Joseph Frank, there are two Dostoyevskys, and that his fame “is based on his fiction writings and not on his nonfiction rantings.” (p. 233) Yet there are also anti-Semitic passages in Dostoyevsky’s fiction. Book XI of The Brothers Karamazov contains the following conversation between the crazy Liza and Alyosha:

…Alyosha, is it true that the Jews steal little children at Passover and kill them with knives?’
‘I do not know.’
‘Well, I have a book in which I read about a trial somewhere, where a Jew had first cut off all the fingers of both hands belonging to a child of four years old, and then crucified him against a wall, hammered in nails and crucified him, and then at his trial he said that the boy died quickly, within four hours. That was quick! He said that the boy had groaned and groaned and that he had stood feasting his eyes on him. That is good!’
‘Yes, good. I sometimes think that I myself crucified him. He hung on the wall, groaning, and I sat down opposite him and ate pineapple compote. I’m very fond of pineapple compote. Are you?’

The “two Dostoyevskys” approach to this is perhaps the most generous and forgiving one, but it also expresses the bewilderment of many people who, like Dershowitz, cannot understand how it’s possible that “a man of Dostoyevsky’s brilliance and insight in so many areas could have harbored such primitive fantasies about the Jews.” After all, Dostoyevsky’s fame rests above all on his reputation as a preacher of Christian love and human brotherhood. In his introduction to David Goldstein’s Dostoevsky and the Jews, Dostoyevsky’s biographer Joseph Frank goes out of his way to create a special category which can be applied to Dostoyevsky, that of “guilty anti-Semite”. Dostoyevsky himself claimed that he was never an anti-Semite, and this leads Frank to suggest that the novelist was split: “There is evidence here of something else besides the usual contempt or disdain, and it indicates that Dostoevsky was capable of both reactions at the same time.”

As one critic has emphasized, Dostoyevsky’s hostility to Jews was only one of a whole series of hates, which included “the Poles, the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church, the socialist idea, the West, atheism, and materialism. In fact, his contempt for the Roman Catholic Church is unparalleled in literature.”

The following words of Shatov in The Possessed give us some idea of how Dostoyevsky saw the world:

“Reduce God to the attribute of nationality?…On the contrary, I elevate the nation to God…The people is the body of God. Every nation is a nation only so long as it has its own particular God, excluding all other gods on earth without any possible reconciliation, so long as it believes that by its own God it will conquer and drive all other gods off the face of the earth. At least that’s what all great nations have believed since the beginning of time, all those remarkable in any way, those standing in the vanguard of humanity…The Jews lived solely in expectation of the true God, and they left this true God to the world…A nation which loses faith is no longer a nation. But there is only one truth; consequently, only one nation can possess the true God…The sole “God bearing” nation is the Russian nation..”

While acknowledging the debt owed by Russian Messianism to the Messianism of Judaic thought, Dostoyevsky believed that Russian Orthodoxy would eventually conquer the decadent civilizations of the West, and he was implacably hostile to anything or anyone that would stand in the way of this conquest.

In confronting Dostoyevsky’s anti-Semitism, it seems that we are forced to choose. If his anti-Semitism was seriously felt and intended, then his writings, including the great works of fiction for which he is famous, are ironic. If, on the other hand, it was the expression of a fundamental split in his character, of which he was aware, and ironically aware, it may be that in the end it was not anti-Semitism at all, but rather an attempt to overcome the culturally-determined anti-Semitism of his upbringing and background in favour of those “who left this true God to the world.” It could even be that were Dostoyevsky alive today, he would be in the forefront of those who defend the state of Israel, and see it as an upholder of virtues and morality that most of the West has forgotten.

For myself, I am sceptical. The presence of anti-Semitism in literature – from Chaucer and Shakespeare and Marlowe through Smollett, Voltaire, Dickens and Thackeray to Eliot and Pound – is all too perceptible, and Dostoyevsky does not constitute an exception, but rather a depressing conformity to the rule. As far as his being a proponent of Christian and brotherly love is concerned, I think one needs to reflect that Dostoyevsky was profoundly affected by the years he spent in prison, in the penal colony in Siberia to which he was exiled. The Christianity at which he ultimately arrived was far from being a simple or straightforward creed. It is not by accident that the Devil is the most important character in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. And, as the author wrote at the very end of his life, in the notebook for 1880-81:

The Devil. (Psychological and detailed critical explanation of Ivan Fyodorovich and the appearance of the Devil.) Ivan Fyodorovich is deep, this is not the contemporary atheists, who demonstrate by their unbelief only the narrowness of their world-outlook and the dimness of their dim-witted abilities… Nihilism appeared among us because we are all nihilists. We were merely frightened by the new, original form of its manifestation. (All to a man Fyodor Pavloviches.) …Conscience without God is a horror, it may lose its way to the point of utter immorality… The Inquisitor is only immoral because in his heart, in his conscience there has managed to accommodate itself the idea of the necessity of burning human beings… The Inquisitor and the chapter about children. In view of these chapters you could take a scholarly, yet not so haughty approach to me where philosophy is concerned, though philosophy is not my speciality. Not even in Europe is there such a power of atheistic expressions, nor has there been. So it is not as a boy, then, that I believe in Christ and confess Him, but through the great crucible of doubt has my hosannah passed, as I have him say, in that same novel of mine, the Devil.”

Personally, I suspect that Dostoevsky is much more divided, and even more ironic than we might give him credit for. I keep going to back to Raskolnikov in C&P and that almost unbelievable coda: I don’t think that Dostoevsky believed any more deeply in Raskolnikov’s ‘salvation’ than we did.

Wednesday’s Reading:

Part Three, Chapter Two, Sections One and Two


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5 Responses to “The whole perplexity lies in just what is more beautiful: Shakespeare or boots, Raphael or petroleum?”

  1. Mahood says:

    A year of Shakespeare…reading all the plays in chronological order…?
    Now that does sound like a great idea!

    • Glad you like it. As you know, we’ll be starting Karamazov next week, so I’m the Shakespeare project will begin sometime after Labor Day — Mid Septemberish. I hope you’ll be able to join in.


  2. Minnikin says:

    I know it’s a few months away yet…but have you thought about what edition of Shakespeare you want to use? Obviously all the individual plays can be picked up cheaply in any bookshop but is there a decent collection of his plays (with annotations, extra notes etc.) that you’d recommend?

    • I appreciate your enthusiasm! And funny you should ask but yep — there’s one I recommend.

      Obviously I’ll talk about this a lot more when it comes time to launch “The Plays The Thing,” but I’ll be using the Pelican Shakespeare:


      It’s also available in paperback, in individual paperback editions, and, if you feel like splurging, in individual hardcover editions. (I was lucky enough to be able to pick this up at a good price a few years ago…)

      Hope this helps.


      • Minnikin says:

        Thanks for the advice on that, Dennis. I’ve just received my hardback copy, very impressive! It’s a beautiful edition with lots of helpful introductions to each of the works…I don’t think I’ll be scribbling notes in it the way I have been with Dostoevsky!

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